Two decades after evicting U.S. forces from their biggest base in the Pacific, the Philippines is in talks with the Obama administration about expanding the American military presence in the island nation, the latest in a series of strategic moves aimed at China.
Although negotiations are in the early stages, officials from both governments said they are favorably inclined toward a deal. They are scheduled to intensify the discussions Thursday and Friday in Washington before higher-level meetings in March. If an arrangement is reached, it would follow other recent agreements to base thousands of U.S. Marines in northern Australia and to station Navy warships in Singapore.
Among the options under consideration are operating Navy ships from the Philippines, deploying troops on a rotational basis and staging more frequent joint exercises. Under each scenario, U.S. forces would effectively be guests at existing foreign bases.
The sudden rush by many in the Asia-Pacific region to embrace Washington is a direct reaction to China’s rise as a military power and its assertiveness in staking claims to disputed territories, such as the energy-rich South China Sea.
“We can point to other countries: Australia, Japan, Singapore,” said a senior Philippine official involved in the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of the deliberations. “We’re not the only one doing this, and for good reason. We all want to see a peaceful and stable region. Nobody wants to have to face China or confront China.”
The strategic talks with the Philippines are in addition to feelers that the Obama administration has put out to other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand, about possibly bolstering military partnerships.
The United States already has about 600 Special Operations troops in the Philippines, where they advise local forces in their fight with rebels sympathetic to al-Qaeda. But the talks underway between Manila and Washington potentially involve a much more extensive partnership.
Officials in the Philippines — which has 7,107 islands — said their priority is to strengthen maritime defenses, especially near the South China Sea. They indicated a willingness to host American ships and surveillance aircraft.
Although the U.S. military has tens of thousands of troops stationed at long-standing bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, as well as the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, it is seeking to solidify its presence in Southeast Asia. Some of the world’s busiest trade routes pass through the South China Sea and the nearby Strait of Malacca.
Instead of trying to establish giant bases reminiscent of the Cold War, however, Pentagon officials said they want to maintain a light footprint.
“We have no desire nor any interest in creating a U.S.-only base in Southeast Asia,” said Robert Scher, a deputy assistant secretary of defense who oversees security policy in the region. “In each one of these cases, the core decision and discussion is about how we work better with our friends and allies. And the key piece of that is working from their locations.”
The distinction is critical in the Philippines, which kicked the U.S. military out of its sprawling naval base at Subic Bay in 1992 after lawmakers rejected a new treaty. Along with the nearby Clark Air Base, which the Pentagon abandoned in 1991 after a volcanic eruption, Subic Bay had served as a keystone of the U.S. military presence in Asia for nearly a century.
Manila and Washington signed a subsequent agreement that allows U.S. forces to visit the archipelago or deploy there periodically while remaining under U.S. legal jurisdiction. The constitution of the Philippines forbids foreign military bases without a treaty.
“There are political sensitivities, and the U.S. is aware of that,” said a senior Philippine official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. “So how can we achieve that presence without it costing too much in terms of political friction?”
Philippine officials said they favor allowing the United States to deploy more troops or ships, as long as they rotate periodically or are considered temporary.
Temporary, however, can still mean a long time. The 600 U.S. Special Operations troops in the Philippines have been on the southern island of Mindanao since 2002, and there is no firm timetable to withdraw them.
The number of port visits by U.S. Navy ships has soared in recent years. The Philippines recently acquired a cutter from the U.S. Coast Guard and is seeking two more of the ships to boost its naval forces. It also wants to buy F-16 fighter jets from Washington.
In interviews, neither Philippine nor Obama administration officials would rule out a return by U.S. ships or forces to Subic Bay. The harbor is now a thriving economic hub and free-trade zone, so any American military presence would pale in comparison with the old days.
But even a small, visiting U.S. force in the Philippines would send a strong signal to Beijing. Although Washington has said it is not trying to contain China’s rise as an economic and military superpower, Obama announced a new military strategy this month under which the Pentagon will “rebalance” the armed forces toward the Asia-Pacific region in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some advocates said the shift in emphasis to Asia was long overdue, given its economic importance and China’s rise.
“I don’t really see this as a pivot. . . . What I see now is a return to a necessary normal,” said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs. “The presence of the United States has become the essential ingredient for stability.”
In addition to the Philippines, Vietnam — another country that once shunned the U.S. military — is restoring ties. In August, a U.S. Navy ship visited the Vietnamese naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for the first time in 38 years. Cam Ranh Bay is a deep-water harbor that served as one of the largest American military installations during the Vietnam War. Vietnam, which has its own territorial disputes with China, has slowly opened its bases to the U.S. Navy for port visits and ship repairs since 2009.
“I don’t see in the near future an American base in Vietnam, but we have seen much more increased military cooperation,” said Webb, a former Navy secretary who fought in Vietnam as a Marine. “They’re not shutting down their relationship with China, but they’re attempting to balance it.”
Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, has called Southeast Asia the region with “perhaps the greatest potential in the future” for the Navy to increase its presence through military partnerships. In a Jan. 10 speech to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, he singled out the Philippines as a country “where perhaps there will be more opportunities emerging,” although he didn’t elaborate.
Greenert cautioned that some of those partnerships would be limited, saying, “Not everybody is interested in getting in an alliance and getting tied up in a long term.” He cited Vietnam as an example. “We don’t want to push it too hard,” he said. “If you move a little too fast, there’s a hesitation.”